JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

November 13, 2016

*****

SWORD BEAN
When Carlos the young engineer was at the rancho working on permaculture projects he ordered some Pigeon Peas, Cajanus cajan, because he'd read that that member of the Bean Family spreads across the ground, providing good cover. He planted the seeds around the Papayas, hoping the resulting ground cover might keep the soil from drying out, making the papayas more productive.

However, what came up from those seeds wasn't the expected much-branched, ground-running Pigeon Pea, but rather a very robust vine with a slender stem that twisted around in the air searching for support on which it could climb skyward. The workers put up poles for them to climb, and you can see what they look like now at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113cj.jpg

From the beginning, these vines displayed amazingly fast growth and produced big leaves and fruits. You can see one of their large, trifoliate leaves, structured very like the leaf of a common garden bean but much larger, as you can see by comparing its size with my hand, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113cn.jpg

Once the vine began to flower, it was easy to identify it not as the expected Pigeon Pea, but rather the Sword Bean, CANAVALIA GLADIATA, a native of the Old World tropics. You can see one of its sizable flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113cl.jpg

The flower's general structure is "papilionaceous," the same as most flowers in the Bean Family, except that the Sword Bean turns its flowers upside-down. Its large "banner" or "standard" petal, which on flowers of most Bean Family members rises above the blossom to attract pollinators, here flairs out at the flower's base. As such, it serves as a pollinator landing pad equipped with white-stripe "nectar guides" pointing to the flower's throat where nectar is available. The scoop-shaped "keel," which in most papilionaceous flowers lies at the blossom's bottom, in this flower rises above the blossom like a curving crest. A side view of the flower showing its two-lipped calyx is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113cm.jpg

It's the Sword Bean's huge, legume-type fruits that really catch attention, though. You an see some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113ck.jpg

An opened pod with beans inside it is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113co.jpg

The beans are so similar to Lima beans that I had to give them a try. I found that with normal cooking they don't soften like Lima beans, and don't absorb the broth and its flavors. They tasted a little uncooked and remained somewhat tough and greenish. On the Internet, "Grower Jim" at BlogSpot.Com suggests letting the bean pods mature and dry, then shell the seeds and cook them. He says that the dried seeds then must be soaked overnight and thoroughly cooked in 2-3 changes of water, to rid the beans of potential toxins.

At the Feedipedia.Org website I read that in Madagascar the vines' young, green fruits and immature seeds are cooked as vegetables. Wanting to try this way of eating them, I picked the immature legumes shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113cp.jpg

When those pods were sliced into small trapezoids and sauteed with onion and chili to make a kind of omelet, it turned out pretty well. The pod sections were chewy but not leathery. They didn't have much taste, but when they're fixed with onion and chili it's enough for them to be green and nutritious.

At the rancho, Sword Bean may end up being more of a livestock fodder and nitrogen-producing ground cover than something we humans eat. The Feedipedia.Org website reports that in various tropical countries the beans are used as feed for cattle and chicken, though if eaten in considerable quantity dry seeds may cause poisoning. The vine itself is a perennial, though usually it's cultivated as an annual, and can reach up to 10m long (33ft). The rancho's burros and cattle show no hesitation about gulping down Sword Bean's beans, pods, and vines with roots.

*****

EATING MORINGA LEAVES
Moringa, MORINGA OLEIFERA, is one of those super-medicinal trees like Neem and Noni that nowadays gets planted throughout the world's tropics. On the Internet many pages report of its supposed benefits, and offer to sell Moringa products. For example, the IdealBite.Com website calls it a superfood and says that in one serving of Moringa Oleifera leaves, you get:

22% daily value of Vitamin C
41% daily value of Potassium
61% daily value of Magnesium
71% daily value of Iron
125% daily value of Calcium
272% daily value of Vitamin A
And:
92 Nutrients
46 Antioxidants
36 Anti-Inflammatories
18 Amino Acids
9 Essential Amino Acids

After that build-up, "Moringa capsules" are offered for sale. Other websites extol the tree's medicinal value for treating such conditions as diabetes, diarrhea, colitis, headache, glandular swelling, fever, bronchitis, eye and ear infections, scurvy, intestinal worms, as a skin antiseptic, and more.

We have a lot of Moringa trees at the rancho. They don't look particularly special. In fact, most of ours are scrappy looking because the workers regularly chop their tops off to feed to livestock. You can see some young trees with re-sprouting branches after being hacked on, the only thing a little distinctive about them being the lighter, yellowish-green color of their ferny leaves, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113mg.jpg

A closer look, however, shows that the produce exceptionally large leaves that are thrice-pinnately compound -- with leaflets divided into leaflets that themselves are divided into leaflets -- as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113mh.jpg

Several tree species in our area producing 3-pinnate leaves might be confused with Moringa, but notice that each of the Moringa leaf's ultimate leaflets is borne on a short, slender stalk, or petiolule. Most leaflets on 3-pinnate leaves are not so conspicuously stalked. Also, note the leaflets' rounded tips, not at all sharply pointed as with most other such leaflets.

The other day Lee at Genesis in Ek Balam requested some Moringa branch tips so she could harvest the thumbnail-size leaflets to mix into a super-charged omelet. When I presented her with a green bouquet of branch tips she put them into a container filled with water, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/161113mi.jpg

The idea behind the composition shown in the above picture is to have the leaflets fall off without those stiff little petiolules being on them to get stuck in teeth. Lee says that after putting the bouquet in a corner for a few days the leaflets fall off, leaving the petiolules behind. She thinks the water in the vase somehow may be necessary.

I've laboriously removed a couple of cupfuls of Moringa leaflets for my own omelets. I couldn't see that they contributed much or any taste, though I liked knowing that they were so nutritious. If you taste raw Moringa leaflets right off the tree, you can taste oxalic acid, as if you were nibbling on sorrel or oxalis leaves. Oxalic acid is produced by many plants to immobilize excess calcium in their systems, so I worry about Moringa's heavy calcium load -- 125% of the body's daily Calcium need, according to our list above -- and all that calcium might lead to kidney stones.

With the experience I've had so far, I much prefer Chaya leaves to those of Moringa, and we have a lot of Chaya here. And Chaya leaves don't come with those pesky little petiolules.

*****

SUNLIGHT ENCHANTMENT
Nowadays as a premature dry season cools and dries out the Yucatan, each morning in the garden I experience sunlight enchantment. It's so cool that I almost need a shirt, shadows are black and dew glistens like shattered glass on leaves. The air is redolent with pungent odors of freshly turned soil, cow manure, crushed bushmint too rank-smelling to be sweet, and the oily, fleshy odor of my own skin as sunlight warms my chest and legs. It feels good, this incoming flood of brightness and glare, and I like to stand leaning on my hoe, looking around.

As my skin warms I visualize as best I can photons, ultraviolet waves and other forms of energy ejecting from the Sun 93,000,000 miles away, with a laughably small part of that blindly bumping into the Earth. But here on little Earth this energy amounts to an inconceivably vast, sky-filling deluge that keeps life going.

At my feet, seeds of lettuce, chard, radish and cilantro have germinated and now each little plant elegantly deploys its dicotyledonous solar panels. The panels are empowered with green chlorophyll that captures sunlight energy to store in bonds between atoms that then perfectly align themselves into molecules of carbohydrate. The carbohydrate along with water makes up practically all the plant's body. When later the plants need energy to conjure flowers and fruits into being they'll break apart some atomic bonds in the carbohydrate, and the energy will be made available.

Or maybe an animal, like me, will eat the plant before it flowers. In that case the Sun's energy stored within the bonds will enter the animal's body and through more magical chemistry enable the animal to move, think and feel.

In the garden, all living things and the things they do, including bird and insect calling, and us animals thinking and feeling, are Sun-powered. The morning's first breeze on my Sun-warmed chest and legs is Sun-powered. And, just think: Untold eons of Sun-powered biological evolution right here and now in this garden are crystallizing into these words coming from me leaning on a hoe handle.

Here are the words I feel like saying right now, and they make me laugh just thinking about sharing them with you: "Bon voyage," I say into the garden's scintillating morning air, "bon voyage to every erg of sunlight energy right now setting sail into this mind-bending mingling of ecology, sharp bushmint odor and fragrance of my thinking, feeling self!"

The Sun rises higher, the warmth on my chest and legs becomes a tingle and finally a kind of a burning. Brightness compounds itself, colors shout, the odor of bushmint disperses on the breeze, grasshoppers pop into the air and black ants crawl up my legs and bite. The ants make me abandon my sunlight enchantment, and remind me that in this world we living things sometimes have to get to work.

Taking a firm grip on the hoe, here's one final thought: All this perfection and magnanimity of spirit blossoms here and everywhere automatically and inevitably. It's just how things are put together. And all we humans have to do to assure its continuance and to participate in the majesty and the bounty, is to not destroy it.

And that's the way it is no matter who the President might be.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.